Heart & Soul

This month we’re talking about what a dissertation is. Why do you have to do one? What does it do for you? Why is it so damn hard?

Today, we’re going to look more closely at that last question.

We’ve already covered many of the aspects of what a dissertation is: a dissertation is an institutional document, a dissertation is a story you’re telling, a dissertation is proof that you can produce new knowledge to the standards of academic rigor, a dissertation is a thousand cranes.

Among all of the things that a dissertation is it is also a little piece of your heart and soul.

This may be one of the biggest differences between the humanities and the sciences, both social and hard.

In the hard sciences you often apply to specific labs to work with specific professors who do research you are generally interested in. The work you do in the lab is often dependent on the funding that the lab is receiving. I’ve known many, many PhDs in the hard sciences who are broadly interested in their dissertation research–certainly interested enough to do it–but it isn’t their passion. In many of the hard sciences the expectation seems to be that you don’t get to work on what you’re really passionate about until you have a lab of your own.

In the social sciences you often do research that is an extension of your advisor’s research interest.

As in so many things the humanities are . . . different.

For instance, my committee had broad interests in the intersections of women’s lives and the state but that was it. None of them were particularly interested in virginity. None of them knew a thing about Christian Nationalism. My research was its own little bubble. This is the case for many humanities PhD’s and it changes the dissertation process in two important ways.

First, your committee can give you general but not specific guidance. In practical terms, this often means that many PhD students find themselves in the odd position of educating their committees on their dissertation topic while simultaneously being evaluated by their committee on the argument we’re making about said topic. In the best case scenario, a supportive committee can encourage a PhD candidate to take ownership of their role as a leading expert in their topic. Unfortunately, it’s much more common for a well-meaning but busy committee to leave their candidate in the dark not knowing how to navigate being both the expert and the person with the least power in the room.

Following from the first, the process of writing your dissertation is more isolating and isolated. For example, I briefly shared an office with two other PhD candidates who shared my advisor. Even though we all shared the same advisor our dissertations had nothing in common. I don’t just mean we had different topics. We used different methods. I combined feminist theory with rhetorical analysis under the framework of Gramscian common sense. One of my office mates did oral histories, participant observation, and autoethnography. My other office mate used interviews, medical journals, semiotics, and autoethnography.

Sure, there are some similarities which clearly drew us to the same advisor, but even when we used similar methods we applied them in such different ways that we weren’t really able to help each other in substantive ways. We could certainly be sounding boards or commiserate about the process in general but, unlike folks sharing a PI/dissertation chair in the sciences, our work was not related enough for us to share sources, methods, data, or even disciplinary conferences.

These three things: your dissertation being a part of who you are, having to educate your committee, and feeling isolated in the process are three of the biggest impediments to dissertation progress at the ABD level.

It is hard enough to offer up your research and your writing for critique.

It is harder to offer your research and writing for critique when it is tied to who you are.

It is still harder to offer up your research and writing for critique when it is tied to who you are and the people critiquing it may not know much about it.

It is hardest to do all of that and feel as if choosing this path has left you isolated with few professional support networks.

If you’re feeling frustrated, angry, or isolated because your work, a part of you, has gotten intense criticism from a committee or chair who isn’t very familiar with your topic just know that you are not alone. It is not something you did wrong in choosing your topic or your committee.

It is part of the current system of how we get PhDs. It is part of why I founded abd2phd.

What’s about to follow is something between a soapbox rant and a shameless plug so keep reading at your own peril.

I had a committee member who always used to tell me “T the P” or “trust the process.” It was only at the very end of my dissertation that I began to realize the process itself was not trustworthy.

I’m grateful for so many of the things I gained from my PhD process. I’m grateful for the way it honed my mind and made me a better thinker. I’m grateful for the expertise and for the chance to do this really rare, incredible thing.

But being grateful for what I gained from the process doesn’t mean I don’t think the process needs some serious changes.

One study puts the rates of mental illness in PhD programs at a third. One in three.

Yes, can gain some great things from the process of getting a PhD, but that doesn’t mean the cost needs to be so damn high.

And that’s why we’re here.

In a perfect world, what we do would be services expected of your committee, but faculty members are struggling to navigate the neoliberal university too.

My own experiences are what prompted me to start this site. I want to help other PhD students move towards work-life balance (to the extent they can), get sh*t done, and know that somebody is on their side. That’s what we’re here for.

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